My Grandma Cahill’s sister-in-law Rita was quite the lady. A search of my hometown newspaper’s archives digs up dozens of mentions of her work with local organizations and charities. She traveled to countries all over the globe (I think she even went to Iceland before it was hip). She was a wife, mother, and from what I hear, could throw one hell of a party. She was also one of the most energetic people I’ve ever met.
One summer afternoon when I still lived at my parent’s house and was woefully out of shape, I went to a gym in a nearby strip mall for a step aerobics class. As I was stretching and steeling myself to look like an uncoordinated fool in leggings and ratty t-shirt, in walked my Great Aunt Rita, ready for class. I took periodic breaks for water (see: catching my breath), but she powered through, never missing a beat.
I found what I believe to be one of my Great Aunt Rita’s recipes in my grandma’s recipe collection. It was neatly folded in a blue envelope with a little note card. I imagine my grandma enjoyed a dinner at Rita’s and asked for the recipe, so Rita typed it up for her—pretty standard stuff.
What’s not-so-standard is that the recipe was written as a poem. There are few measurements or classic instructions, just twelve triplet stanzas of culinary verse. I’m not sure if Aunt Rita wrote it herself, but I know I couldn’t find any traces of it on the web, suggesting it was an original or a recipe lost to the ages. (Click the recipe below to see it full-size.)
I followed the recipe on Sunday and it turned out really well. The sauce simmered for a few hours and made my apartment smell wonderful. It also fed a number of hungry people on Sunday night and lasted for a dinner and lunch during the week. See more photos and the typed recipe…
I love making bread on Sunday afternoons. I mix and knead the dough with my hands, turning it over and over again on the big cutting board in my kitchen until it’s smooth, and then let it rise on a ledge by the window. The weekend fades as the dough transforms underneath a tea towel.
It may be in my genes because Honey Whole Wheat Bread was one of my Grandma Mangan’s favorite recipes. I found it written on a piece of stationary from Americana Hotels, which was a chain owned by American Airlines during the 60s and 70s. The 800 number at the bottom is no longer in service, so I’m assuming the chain went bankrupt or the number was sold after the fervor of the U.S. Bicentennial wound down.
After baking this bread last weekend, I can see why my grandma loved it so much. It’s perfect with a bit of butter or drizzle of honey. See the recipe and more photos…
When my Grandma Cahill moved into a nursing home a few years ago, her house on the South Side of Binghamton, New York had to be cleaned out and sold. Some of her belongings were split among my father and his brothers, some were split among the grandchildren, a few things were sold, a few were donated, and the rest went in the trash.
In addition to a set of china—which sits in my father’s basement since I have nowhere to put it in my tiny Brooklyn apartment—I was entrusted with my grandma’s box of recipes. It’s made of thin brown plastic with a wood grain pattern and is bursting with dozens of index cards and scraps of paper. Most were written down in my grandmother’s cursive, while others were written by her friends on personalized stationary (some in poetic verse). I imagine her friends coming over for cocktail hour and handing her a recipe for brownies in a sealed envelope, like government secrets or a cash payoff.
The box is also full of old newspaper clippings and recipes that came with packaged foods, like fruited Jello salads and Betty Crocker frostings. One little booklet of healthy recipes includes a helpful chart that shows your ideal weight based on your height in two-inch heels. Oh, the sixties.
My Aunt Ann and mother are the keepers of my Grandma Mangan’s recipes. Like Grandma Cahill, my Grandma Mangan also had a box full of recipes on index cards. She also kept a number of recipes and clippings stuffed between the pages of a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. They don’t include any poetry as far as I’ve found, but they do include a lot of cooking tips from Dom DeLuise.
I have so many of my grandmothers’ recipes, but I have few memories of them cooking. I remember the meals—Grandma Mangan made big dinners for our family every Sunday and Grandma Cahill was in charge of the Christmas Eve feast—but I was too young to help, or too busy running with a pack of cousins in the backyard to notice what was going on inside. Now that Grandma Mangan is gone and Grandma Cahill’s mind has faded, these recipes and the memories of their children and grandchildren are all that’s left of decades in the kitchen.
I missed the chance to learn from my grandmothers in person, but by making their recipes and those they collected, I hope to learn their techniques and connect with my families’ culinary pasts. I’m also going to dig into my old cookbook collection and learn about the cooking styles of specific communities and regions across the country. Kitchen Archive is where I’ll share everything I find with you.